Bullying

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Bullying facts

  • Bullying is defined as physical or verbal aggression that is repeated over a period of time and, in contrast to meanness, involves an imbalance of power.
  • Twenty eight percent of young people from grades six through 12 have been the victim of bullying.
  • Teachers often underestimate how much bullying is occurring at their schools.
  • Parents tend to be aware their child is being bullied only about half the time.
  • There are thought to be four types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, and reactive.
  • Bullies often have been found to have rather high self-esteem and to be social climbers.
  • Bystanders of bullying tend to succumb to what they believe is peer pressure to support bullying behavior and fear of becoming the victim.
  • Bullying can have significantly negative outcomes, for both the bully and the victim.
  • There are a number of approaches that victims and bystanders of bullying, as well as parents, school, and work personnel can use to discourage bullying at school or in the workplace.

What is bullying? How can someone distinguish bullying from meanness?

While state laws have little consistency in their definition of bullying, the accepted definition by many mental health professionals is physical or verbal aggression that is repeated over a period of time and involves an imbalance of power. It is further characterized by the bully repeatedly using the higher social status they have over the victim to exert power and to hurt the victim. When the harassment, name calling, gossiping, rumor spreading, threats, or other forms of intimidation expand from being done in person or by phone to the use of emails, chat rooms, blogs, or other social media over the Internet, it is referred to as cyber bullying or online bullying. In contrast, meanness does not involve an imbalance of power. In other words, meanness involves hurtful behaviors between people that are equals, in social standing and otherwise.

Bullying is usually thought of as taking place between children at school. However, it can also occur at work and include behaviors like verbal abuse, sabotaging the victim's job or work relationship, or misusing authority. Adult bullies who engage in these behaviors are males 60% of the time. While men who bully tend to victimize both genders equally, women bullies target other women about 80% of the time.

Quick GuideTeen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

Teen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

Parents, Teenagers & Bullying

How can parents help their teen deal with bullying?

Bullying is one of the biggest challenges that teens are facing. Unfortunately, many teens are forced to deal with bullying while their parents and teachers are unaware on the specific nature and severity of the problem in their school.

What are the different types of bullying?

There are thought to be at least five types of bullying.

  • Physical bullying can involve hitting, kicking, pinching, pushing, or otherwise attacking others.
  • Verbal bullying refers to the use of words to harm others with name-calling, insults, making sexual or bigoted comments, harsh teasing, taunting, or verbal threats.
  • Relational bullying focuses on excluding someone from a peer group, usually through verbal threats, spreading rumors, and other forms of intimidation.
  • Reactive bullying involves the bully responding to being a former victim by picking on others.
  • Bullying can also involve assault on a person's property, when the victim has his or her personal property taken or damaged.

Boys tend to engage in bullying more often than girls, especially at high school age and beyond, and are more likely to engage in physical or verbal bullying, while girls more often engage in relational bullying.

How common is bullying?

Some statistics on bullying suggest that 28% of students from grades six through 12 have a history of being the victim of bullying, while 30% of high school students acknowledge having bullied other students. About 10%-14% of children have been the victim of bullying for more than six months. Most victims of cyberbullying have also been victims of school bullying.

Studies show that teachers often underestimate how much bullying is occurring at their school since they only see about 4% of bullying incidents that occur. Further, victims of bullying only report it to school adults one-third of the time, usually when the bullying is being suffered repeatedly or has caused injury. Parents tend to be aware their child is being bullied only about half the time.

More than 40% of workers in the United States are thought to have been bullied in the workplace. More than 90% of working women are estimated to believe they have been undermined by another woman at some time in their careers. However, due to the stereotype that women should be more nurturing, a woman may perceive normal supervision from another woman as undermining.

What makes a bully? Why do kids bully? Why do adults bully?

Bullying is thought to be the result of the bully's need to get and keep control over someone else. The aggression that is involved in bullying is thought to interfere with the empathy needed to refrain from bullying others. The aggression is described as being of two different types: proactive aggression and reactive aggression. Proactive aggression is described as being organized, emotionally detached, and driven by the desire for a reward. Reactive aggression is defined as impulsive, in response to a perceived threat or precipitant, and usually associated with intense emotion, especially anxiety or anger. Contrary to the stereotype of the bully who is socially inept trying to make him or herself feel better, bullies who have never been the victim of bullying have been found to have rather high self-esteem and to be social climbers. Child and adult bullies have a tendency to have low tolerance for frustration, trouble empathizing with others, and a tendency to view innocuous behaviors by their victims as being provocative. Many non-victimized bullies are thought of as bi-strategic controllers, using both prosocial actions (for example, likeability and popularity) and negative actions (for example, intimidating or coercing others) to engage in these hurtful behaviors toward others.

Bullies who have been the victim of bullying themselves (bully/victims) tend to be more aggressive than bullies who have never been a victim of bullying. They tend to be less popular, more often bullied by their siblings, be otherwise abuse or neglected, and to come from families of low socioeconomic status.

Bystanders of bullying, those who witness it but are neither the primary bully nor the victim, tend to succumb to what they believe is peer pressure to support bullying behavior and fear of becoming the victim of the bully if they don't support the behavior. Further, bystanders are at risk for engaging in bullying themselves if they encourage the bullying by paying attention to the behavior or laughing about it.

What are causes and risk factors of bullying?

Risk factors for being the victim of bullying include having low understanding of emotional or social interactions, a tendency to become upset easily, or already suffering from anxiety or depression. Actual or perceived obesity of the victim is also a risk factor. Being underweight is slightly associated with being bullied. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth are more often victims of bullying compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Children who have disabilities or are immigrants or highly achieving minorities are more vulnerable to being bullied, as well.

What are symptoms and warning signs of children and adults who are bullied?

Signs that may indicate that a child may be being bullied include missing belongings, unexplained injuries, and a limited number of friends. Symptoms experienced by victims of bullying may be physical, emotional, and behavioral. Examples of physical symptoms include those often associated with stress, like headaches, stomachaches, changes in appetite, bedwetting, dizziness, and general aches and pains. Psychological symptoms often include irritability, anxiety, sadness, trouble sleeping, frequent nightmares, tiredness in the mornings, loneliness, helplessness, and feeling isolated. Victims of bullying may exhibit behavioral symptoms as well, like avoiding social situations, getting to school or work late, taking off more days, or even trying to retaliate against their tormentors. Their grades may decline and they may become self-destructive (for example, run away from home, hurting themselves or contemplating suicide).

What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying can be associated with significantly serious problems. Teens who bully are at greater risk for engaging in delinquent behaviors, including vandalism, as well as violence inside and outside of school. They are also at risk of substance abuse and dropping out of school. Victims of these behaviors also tend to develop or increase their severity of anxiety. Bullies and victims tend to experience depression more than their peers who have not been involved in bullying, which can lead to academic problems, frequent absences from school, loneliness, and social isolation. Research shows that bullies and their victims are also at risk for having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People who were bullied as children are at risk for having less social support during adulthood, and those who were bully/victims during childhood may have poorer physical and financial health, more antisocial behavior, and be more likely to become a young parent compared to bullies who have never been the victim of bullying. Victims of workplace bullying may suffer from reduced job performance, more absences, and less work satisfaction. Ultimately, bullying may be the cause of higher staff turnover. People who are both victims and perpetrators of bullying seem to be more vulnerable to experiencing both internalizing (for example, loneliness, depression, and anxiety) and externalizing (for example, antisocial) symptoms.

Either being a bully or the victim of bullying has been found to increase the risk of engaging in self-harm, as well as suicidal thoughts and actions in both boys and girls. However, research indicates that the risk of both thoughts and attempts at suicide seem to be higher for girl victims and girl bullies no matter how infrequent the bullying occurs. However, the risk of suicidal thoughts seems to increase in boy bullies and victims when the bullying occurs repeatedly. Interestingly, the frequency of suicide gestures/attempts in boy bullies and victims seems to increase even when bullying occurs infrequently.

Quick GuideTeen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

Teen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

What should victims of bullying and their parents do to stop bullying? What are the treatment options for victims of bullying?

Child development professionals tend to suggest that if parents think their child is being bullied, they should take it seriously and encourage them to talk about it. Remaining calm, supportive, and reassuring the youth that they are not to blame for their victimization can go a long way to helping the victim of bullying feel comfortable enough to talk about it. The parent should try to gain details about the circumstances of his or her bullying and who is involved and teach the child how to respond to being bullied assertively, without getting upset. The kid may also find it helpful to stay with other students and a teacher so the bully has less opportunity to engage in the behavior. Other ways to stop bullying in schools include parents contacting the school and remaining in touch with them to seek their help in alleviating the bullying, while at the same time understanding that school personnel are often unaware that bullying is occurring and their kid may fear reprisals for having school authorities alerted. As of 2014, the District of Columbia and the majority of U.S. states had laws against bullying, and 20 specifically included cyberbullying in the description. Contrary to the inclination of many parents, mental health professionals advise against contacting the parents of the bully.

Aside from addressing the bullying directly, victims of bullying may benefit from engaging in activities that can improve their confidence, self-esteem, and overall emotional strength, whether it be sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. Engaging in such activities can also help the youth build friendships and improve their social skills. Professional help in the form of psychotherapy and/or treatment with psychiatric medication may be necessary if the victim of bullying has significant emotional symptoms that interfere with their ability to function that rises to a diagnosable mental health condition.

What can parents do if the school downplays a report of bullying?

Since bullying tends to flourish in secrecy, parents are commonly advised to continue communicating with school personnel and other pertinent community members until the bullying has been addressed and resolved. For example, if the behavior is reported to the child's teacher and the teacher fails to intervene, parents should consider advancing through the school chain of command to the school counselor, assistant principal, and principal. Parents of other victims of bullying may be sources of support, as can be the child's pediatrician.

What should parents do if they think their child is bullying others? What are treatment options for people who bully others?

Advice for parents who think their child is bullying others includes talking to their child to share the details of the actions of which they have been accused and listening to their side of what happened, holding your child fully and fairly accountable for their actions, spending more time with him or her, monitoring their activities, and supervising them appropriately. Other tips for parents whose children are bullying others include staying in close touch with the school to monitor for any further incidents and encouraging your child to engage in positive social activities with positive role models. All bullies may benefit from being given socially appropriate ways to express their aggression (for example, through martial arts, writing, or other supervised group activities). Those who were formerly victims of bullying may experience a decrease in bullying behavior when their life is improved through protecting them from adverse experiences, including abuse or neglect. Bullies who exhibit sufficient symptoms to qualify for a mental health diagnosis should receive treatment accordingly.

Quick GuideTeen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

Teen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Sexting

What can people do if they see someone being bullied?

Bystanders to bullying can help discourage bullying behavior by asking other people who are witnessing the bullying how they feel about what they have seen and whether they feel the behavior is right or wrong. The group of bystanders can decide individually or as a group to positively influence the situation by expressing their disapproval toward the bully and/or notifying people in authority, like teachers, counselors, or administrators at school or supervisors or the human resources department in the workplace. Bystanders to bullying can also discourage the behavior by encouraging the victim to ask for help from peers and authority figures.

What measures can be implemented to prevent bullying at school and in the workplace?

Effective bullying prevention programs at school tend to be school-wide and involve education of students, teachers, administrators, and parents on what bullying is and the extent to which it is harmful for all involved, understanding how others may view victims, and how to get help. Yearly surveys of kids can help maintain awareness of how severe the bullying problem is in a school. Just informing the parents of bullying victims tends to improve the victim child's quality of life. Successful anti-bullying programs increase playground supervision, provide clear consequences for bullying, and teach students who are bystanders to bullying how to stand up for victims so that bullying behavior gains a stigma rather than being socially beneficial.

Workplace interventions that tend to be effective are similar to those in school, in that the interventions are implemented throughout the workplace. Coworkers and supervisors are encouraged to address each other by name and with respect, fully participate in required tasks, and avoid gossiping about each other or excluding anyone from conversation.

Interventions that have not consistently been found to be helpful in preventing or decreasing bullying include having the bully and victim try to work out their differences in front of a teacher or counselor at school, a supervisor, or human resources staff at work. Rigid rather than firm no tolerance for bullying policies tend to result in overreactions to behaviors that do not constitute bullying. Telling students above the elementary school level to report bullying may lead to increased bullying. Teachers or work supervisors who either directly or indirectly either intimidate other kids themselves or tolerate such behaviors are an obstacle to implementing an effective anti-bullying school program.

How can people reduce their risk for being bullied?

Since low self-esteem tends to be a risk factor for becoming the victim of bullying, interventions that promote confidence and self-esteem are important ways to reduce the risk of being bullied. Confidence builders can range from engaging in activities at which the person excels (for example, theatrical performances, sports teams, and special work projects) to engaging in psychotherapy. As isolation is both a risk factor and result of bullying, helping the person feel less alone by lending a listening ear and/or engaging in a support group can go a long way toward providing the community needed to prevent a person from being bullied.

Where can people find more information about bullying?

Anti Defamation League
http://www.adl.org

Bully Free Systems
262 Ironwood Drive
Murray, KY 42071
270-227-0431

Bully Free Program
http://www.bullyfree.com

Bullying.org
http://www.bullying.org

Cyberbully Hotline
http://cyberbullyhotline.com

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
http://www.glsen.org

Kids Against Bullying
http://www.kidsagainstbullying.org

KnowBullying (free app)
http://apple.co/2xfFLI6
http://bit.ly/2xQWe4X

National Bullying and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Intervention Program
http://www.nea.org/home

StopBullying.gov
http://www.stopbullying.gov

Teens Against Bullying
http://www.teensagainstbullying.org

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Children's Health & Parenting Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Medically Reviewed on 11/29/2017
References
REFERENCES:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Bullying. No. 80; 2011 March.

Bazelon, E. "Defining bullying down." The New York Times Mar. 11, 2013.

Brescia, H. "Time to catch-up: the states that are behind on cyberbullying laws." 2014. Analysis of Policy Regarding Cyberbullying. <http://www.sites.duke.edu>.

DiMarco, J.E., and M.K. Newman. When Your Child is Being Bullied: Real Solutions for Parents, Educators and Other Professionals. New York: Vivisphere Publishing, 2011.

Drexler, P. "The tyranny of the queen bee." Wall Street Journal Mar. 1, 2013.

Due, P., B.E. Holstein, J. Lynch, et al. "Bullying and symptoms among school-aged children: international comparative cross sectional study in 28 countries." European Journal of Public Health 5.2 Apr. 2005: 128-132.

Espelage, D.L., and S.M. Swearer. Bullying in American Schools: A Social-Ecological Perspective on Prevention and Intervention. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2004.

Fekkes, M., F.I.M. Pijpers, A.M. Fredriks, et al. "Do bullied children get ill, or do ill children get bullied? A prospective cohort study on the relationship between bullying and health-related symptoms." Pediatrics 117.5 May 2006: 1568-1574.

Gaffney, D.A., R.F. DeMaco, A. Hofmeyer, J.A. Vessey, and W.C. Budin. "Workplace Bullying -- A Grounded Theory." Nursing Research and Practice 2012.

Goodwin, B. "Research says...bullying is common-and subtle." Promoting Respectful Schools 69.1 Sept. 2011: 82-83.

Kennedy-Moore, E. "Is it bullying...or ordinary meanness?" Psychology Today October 2014.

Klomek, A.B., A. Sourander, and M.S. Gould. "Bullying and suicide." Psychiatric Times Feb. 2011.

Kowalski, R.M., and S.P. Limber. "Psychological, physical and academic correlates of cyberbullying and traditional bullying." Journal of Adolescent Health 53.1 July 2013: S13-S20.

Langlois, B. "Five steps to reduce bullying." Nursing Critical Care 7.1 January 2012: p. 48.

Luxenberg, H., S.P. Limber, and D. Olweus. "Bullying in U.S. schools: 2013 status report." 2014. Hazelden Foundation.

Lyness, D. "Helping kids deal with bullies." KidsHealth.org. July 2013.

Menesini, E., and C. Salmivalli. "Bullying in schools: the state of knowledge and effective interventions." Psychology, Health and Medicine 22.1 (2017): 240-253.

Miglaiaccio, T., and J. Raskauskas. "Small-scale bullying prevention discussion video for classrooms: a preliminary evaluation." Children Schools 35.2 (2013): 71-81.

Milsom, A., and L.L. Gallo. "Bullying in middle schools: prevention and intervention." Association for Middle Level Education 37.3 Jan. 2006: 12-19.

National Education Association. Bullying Prevention in Public Schools. 2012.

Pearce, J.B., and A.E. Thompson. Practical approaches to reduce the impact of bullying. Archives of Disease in Childhood December 1998: 528-531.

Salmon, G., A. James, E.L. Cassidy, and M.A. Javaloyes. "Bullying a review: presentations to an adolescent psychiatric service and within a school for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children." Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 5.4 Oct. 2000: 563-579.

Sandberg, S. Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead. New York: Random House, 2013.

Schneider, S.K., L. O'Donnell, A. Stueve, and R.W.S. Coulter. "Cyberbullying, school bullying and psychological distress: a regional census of high school students." American Journal of Public Health Nov. 2011: 1-7.

Shemesh, E., R.A. Annunziato, M.A. Ambrose, et al. "Child and parental reports of bullying in a consecutive sample of children with food allergy." Pediatrics 131.1 Jan. 2013: e10-e17.

Smeets, K.C., S. Oostermeijer, M. Lappenschaar, et al. "Are proactive and reactive aggression meaningful distinctions in adolescents? A variable- and person-based approach." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 45.1 (2017): 1-14.

Swearer, S.M., D.L. Espelage, T. Vaillancourt, and S. Hymel. "What can be done about school bullying? Linking research to educational practice." Educational Researcher 39.1 Jan./Feb. 2010: 38-47.

Tippett, N. "Focus on: Bullying and Mental Health." 2015. Anti-Bullying Alliance.

Wilson, M.L., B. Viswanathan, V. Rousson, and P. Bovet. "Weight status, body image and bullying among adolescents in the Seychelles." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 10.5 (2013): 1763-1774.

Wolke, D., and S.T. Lereya. "Long-term effects of bullying." Archives of Disease in Children 100.9 September 2015: 879-885.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors